This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on September 10, 2012.
What did Jesus look like? What was his personality type and personal style? How many ‘likes’ did he have on his Facebook page? The Bible does not offer us a biography of Jesus. While there are biographical elements, the Bible focuses on Jesus’ character and what he accomplished on our behalf. Here is what Isaiah 53 has to say about the Suffering Servant, whom hosts of Christians throughout the ages believe refers to Jesus:
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Nothing positive is said about Jesus’ physical appearance. The closest thing to a positive assertion is that there was nothing in his appearance that would attract us (Is. 53:2; and I don’t think this verse is only speaking of his passion). Jesus may not have been the ugliest man alive, but I doubt he looked like Fabio.
Jesus wasn’t consumed with how many likes he received for his blog posts. He probably didn’t have a Facebook fan page. Rather, he was consumed with zeal for his Father’s house (John 2:17) and for turning his servants into friends for whom he would die (John 15:13). In light of Jesus, what consumes you and me?
The Bible is far more concerned about Jesus’ character and the quality of his work on our behalf than it is about his style or persona. In like manner, the Apostle Paul was far more concerned about the character of leaders rather than their personal traits. As in Jesus’ case, there is no attention given to matters of charisma and charm. Dietrich Bonhoeffer draws attention to Paul’s emphasis on character in reflecting upon the qualifications for elders. Here is what Bonhoeffer has to say:
The desire we so often hear expressed today for “episcopal figures,” “priestly men,” authoritative personalities” springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (1 Tim. 3:1ff.). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, Harper & Row Publishers, 1954, 108-109).
Bonhoeffer’s book in which these words appear was published in 1939 in Nazi Germany. And yet, Bonhoeffer’s reflection speaks to our situation today in the church in the United States just as much as it did then, if not more. The cult of personality as it manifests itself in Christian circles (i.e., the fixation with celebrity status, charisma and charm) is one of the most dangerous and damaging issues facing the church here in the U. S. It takes away attention from Jesus and his singular authority in our lives. We only have one Lord and Teacher—him. The rest of us are really brothers and sisters. It is worth noting that at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer had students refer to him as Brother Bonhoeffer; perhaps he took to heart and applied Jesus’ words about having only one teacher and Lord (recorded in Matthew 23:8) to his context in this manner. The cult of personality also takes away from the authority of Scripture in our lives.
In Acts 17:11, we are told that the Bereans are of more noble character than the Thessalonians because they searched the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true. The Apostle Paul was not immune to the possibility of Scripture’s critique. Like the rest of us, it was critically important that his teaching line up with the Scriptures. His good friend Luke, who wrote Acts, affirmed the Bereans for their holding Paul accountable to God’s Word (in this case, what we would call the Old Testament). In keeping with Paul, apostolic authority today is bound up with our adherence to Scripture, which adheres to Jesus’ character and work. We undermine Scripture’s authority when we claim and/or act as if its truth and authority are subject to us and our interpretation. The cult of personality also undermines the practice of the priesthood of all believers. In Martin Luther’s day, the Catholic church stood in the way of the masses being liberated to study and apply the Word of God in fresh, faithful, and compelling ways. In our day, it is often Protestant celebrities, not Catholic saints, that hinder us. In many Protestant circles, it is not a creed or a council or a college of cardinals or community that drives a movement, but a celebrated personality. The church will never be unleashed if we are always made to center on the leader in our midst rather than, through the written Word and Spirit, on the Lord over all.
While I have mentored various people over the years, my concern should never be who is and how many are following me (not that they should be following me, but hopefully learning from me as I follow Jesus; see 1 Corinthians 11:1), but who am I as a leader following and pointing them toward (hopefully Jesus) and who am I leading (being concerned for them as persons, highborn and lowborn alike with no respect for prestige bound up with their capacities according to their flesh, but rather focused on character and calling). I was encouraged this weekend, when a small group of student participants in The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, some family members, and I met in Sisters, Oregon, for a spiritual formation retreat.
One of the students who had been away for some time from such gatherings shared with us that he was encouraged that he sensed from our intimate interaction that our focus was not on looking good, but on being good, not in a moralistic and fixed way, but in a relational and dynamic way, where we are going in pursuit of Christ together, not anyone or anything else. Of course, we have a long way to go. Of course, we struggle with focus from time to time. But may we continue to pray that God will continue to fan the flame of the Spirit-ignited character of Christ in our community rather than blaze new trails for lesser ambitions. As we left Sisters, Oregon yesterday for our long return trip to Portland, we saw in the distance smoke from a forest fire that was spreading a dark cloud overhead. Hopefully, that fire was not the only thing that was spreading as we returned home. While I hope the fire in Sisters is now under control, I pray that my brothers and sisters meeting with me in Sisters will spread like wildfire as the Spirit of Jesus moves mightily through them. We may not look the best, but may Jesus and his loving character shape us to be the best reflections of his glory as we move out in his Spirit to bless others.
What kind of community are you and I forming? Are you and I and the communities we serve passionate about looking good, or being good? Are we concerned about Christ-likeness or ‘likes’ and looks? At the end of the day, what and who do we love? What I love about Jesus is that there is no emphasis on show or style, but on the substance of his love from and for his Father and you and me. May this love shape our character and cause us to love as he loves, as we faithfully serve in word and deed those whom he has entrusted to our care for him.